Updated: Mar 17
The party continues and a surprising guest makes an appearance.
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Episode 231. About 10 months (108)
The banquet was progressing smoothly. Just after the cake cutting, Duchess Helen Stuart, who was seated next to me, clapped in surprise.
"Oh my! I forgot your present"
The family's eyes immediately focused on her.
"Oh dear. That's quite all right, Duchess. By the way, why didn't our Honourable Lord Theodore come?"
Hmm, why was he suddenly 'our' Theodore?
The Grand Duchess answered my father's question right away, as if she had been anticipating it.
"Well... He refused because he was too busy, and the banquet hall would be too difficult a setting to converse with Tara. Surely you can understand? Ho ho ho. Now, I can't let the reputation of House Stuart fall into ruin. I'll quickly summon a messenger to bring my missing present. Ho ho ho ho.”
"I am honoured that the Grand Duchess has chosen to attend my birthday celebration in person. So please, there is no need to trouble yourself with a present!"
"Oh my! Don't make me say it twice! I merely want to give you a present!"
I realized it then, when I saw the firm determination in the old Duchess's eyes.
Had she left her present at home on purpose?
Sure enough, Viscount Theodore Stuart Morgana soon made an elegant entrance in the banquet hall dressed in luxurious splendor. His mouth was curved into a blindingly bright smile.
I heard dolphin-like shrieks from the few young ladies my age who were in attendance.
"I can't believe it! I never thought I'd see Viscount Theo here... Kyaa...!"
"Oh my gosh! This must be a reward for my good deeds! What should I do? I don't know what to do with myself when he smiles like that!”
"Oh my God. I ate too much earlier. How bad is it? Can't you see my stomach sticking out?"
The grand hall buzzed with his arrival.
Even though he received many invitations from High Society, he never attended any events unless it was for one of his close family members.
He had even refused an invitation from the Palace. Yet here he was, making an appearance with a bright smile on his face in order to deliver a gift to a young unmarried lady.
Countless eyes followed him as he slowly walked towards me, like a celebrity on the red carpet, as if he was used to being gawked at.
Ha! So this was why he declined my invitation.
I stood up to greet him with a big smile on my face.
After bowing to me he frowned slightly.
"My God, your smile is so bright that it's blinding, Lady Tara, it makes me want to look away. Hahaha." He exclaimed quickly.
The distinguished guests sitting on either side of him laughed, “My gosh, what a funny young man! I aspire to his admirable sense of humour.” And spouted other such ridiculous compliments.
After slowly counting to 3 in my head, I responded with a smile.
“Thank you, Viscount, for taking time out of your busy schedule to bring me a present even though a messenger could have sufficed.”
"Hahaha. True. It turns out all our messengers were on vacation. But then Grandma forgot the present and I happened to be at the estate. What an odd coincidence, isn't that right, Lady Tara? Hahaha."
This wasn't a coincidence. It was a scheme.
"You're busy... It's not polite to take up any more of your time, I'll have to let you go quickly. Surely you have work you'd like to finish, Viscount?"
Theodore shrugged his shoulders, and rolled his eyes to the side with a meaningful smile.
"Although I'm very busy, the colleague I was supposed to visit fell ill, so I have some time. Besides, it's the birthday of a young lady who has a special relationship with our family, so of course I should be here to celebrate! Don't you agree? Ha ha ha."
"Oh, yes. Yes, yes. Doesn't that sound like a thousand good reasons to stay? Hahaha. Since you have time, why don't you sit, Viscount Theodore? No need to leave. Come now!"
"Thank you for the invitation, Count Elias."
I clenched my teeth. After he paid his respects to my father, I hissed at him under my breath before he moved away.
"Viscount! I hope my father does not harbour any false expectations. I truly am busy today."
He nodded slightly at my words and whispered back quickly, "You look like you're tired of having to smile. Don't worry. You're busy today, so I'm going to enjoy a banquet for the first time in a while. You must have had a hard time on your business trip. You're looking a bit thin."
Then he sat next to my father.
I was slightly embarrassed by the concern in his final words.
Had I been too suspicious of him? Oh, I didn't know, but I couldn't afford to worry about anything other than the Countess tonight. Well… at least he understood my intentions.
The banquet went by quickly, and true to his word, Theodore showed no particular interest in me after that.
Even though he must have known that every young lady in the room was staring at him, he showed no particular interest in them either.
Hmm. He definitely was a handsome man...
Before Theodore’s arrival the ladies’ eyes had rested noticeably on my brother Logan, but afterwards their gazes lingered on Theo, likely due to his attractive features and magnetic air.
Time flew by until the clock struck 9 o’clock.
Attending such a big banquet as the guest of honour was very mentally and physically draining. I would highly recommend it if you wanted to feel the energy leaking out of you in real time just by sitting still.
I greeted each of the guests who approached me cordially, despite the fact I had never even seen most of them before.
I had never expected to receive so many birthday wishes in my entire lifetime.
The edges of my smile were wavering, and now, after three hours, my face felt completely numb. Now, even hearing the word “birthday” made my teeth clench, but I continued to respond with as much graciousness as possible and thanked each of them.
Was this what a birthday party was supposed to be like?
Wasn't it typical for a lady of my age to have the kind of laid back party where I could chat with my peers and open birthday presents?
Oh... I guess I didn't have any friends my age.
Even though I didn't have friends my age, I'd still received a lot of birthday presents. A stack of gift boxes was piled up in one corner of the banquet hall.
How many of them did I really need? However, I was also curious about what kinds of gifts nobles in this world would give on this occasion and my gaze kept straying to them.
It was unspoken custom to open presents at birthday banquets with your family after all the celebrations were over.
It was like when you opened congratulatory money after a wedding, you only shared it with your family.*
The contents of birthday gifts were a constant topic in high society gossip.
For example, if a lady gave me an expensive gift and I gave her something less valuable in return on her birthday I'd be called heartless, blah, blah, blah, etc. And it would float around high society gossip circles until it was eventually forgotten. But it would be impossible for them to substantiate any rumours unless they were close acquaintances.
By the way, wasn't Andrei enjoying himself a little too much? It was as if this was his birthday everyone was celebrating.
I certainly wasn't the only one distracted by Andrei, he also drew the gazes of many of the guests. His clothing was lavish, and he was heavily adorned with necklaces and earrings. His laugh stood out and he socialized freely with many other attendees.
Bursts of his laughter rang through the hall, and he reminded me of Hong Gildong from the famous novel.**
He delighted in entertaining the middle-aged wives with jokes, and before I knew it he was becoming the most popular guest at the party.
I struggled to accomplish anything for three hours, because I was being pulled into conversations from all sides. Among all of those who occupied my attention, the one who talked to me the most was, by far, the Countess herself.
"Are you uncomfortable at all?"
"Are you enjoying the food?"
"The guests keep complimenting you, Tara."
"Come here. Some respected high society ladies want to see you."
She kept constantly asking me questions. It was so unusual for her to be attentive to me that the maids standing on the wall stared at her with round eyes. She was certainly a much better actress than my father was.
Watching the Countess, my father, mother, and siblings all shook their heads, bewildered.
She had been acting strange since greeting the guests in the hall, so I was less surprised to see her doing it now. I'd assumed she was just doing it in order to appear to be a good host at such a large-scale banquet.
"What could it be? She's her usual self, but something is off? What happened to the Countess this morning to make her this way? Did you do something to her?" Aria asked.
"I have no idea. Did you bring a present?"
“Keep this between the two of us. I was too busy writing my book, and I couldn’t prepare anything in advance, so I added my gift to Chloe’s envelope.”
I wondered what she was talking about, but then I figured it out. It turned out Aria had put her gift money in the envelope Chloe had given me for a present.
Chloe gifted me 200 gold and Aria gave me 50 gold, 250 gold in total. That was worth roughly 125 million won.***
Wow. That was a lot of money!
Even though the Elias family merchant group fell short of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in the Empire, we were at least in the top 10!
Before I knew it, Andrei was seated across from Theodore.
Oh God! Don't let him say anything weird, please!
At the gift presentation ceremony two hours ago, I'd had a chance to chat with Andrei when he approached me as if he was giving me a present.
[Today I am visiting as Andrei, humble citizen of the great desert nation of Arania. I have already paid my respects to the Count as such, make no mistake!]
[Oh. Somehow, I thought you might be revealing your identity as the head of an intelligence organization, but clearly you had a plan. Of course, do whatever you want. So, what's your answer? Did you get the ledger or not?]
[To be exact, I didn't get a chance to obtain it.]
[That means... Someone else took it?]
[As expected, you're quick on the uptake. The security department already took it in a raid, a crackdown on illegal gambling houses. As for why? It appears to have been on the Second Prince's orders. You didn’t know?]
I never got to answer Andrei's question, because a group of young ladies approached me.
'Why did Kyle do that? When did he give that order?'
Andrei noticed my confusion, said we should discuss it more in detail at the next pause in the festivities, and then dodged around the group of noisy young ladies.
It was now just past 10 o'clock, and the banquet had continued into the deepening night with no end in sight.
"In 5 minutes, there will be a fireworks display in the back garden, so we advise that all our distinguished guests in the hall should proceed there slowly."
An excited commotion arose at the butler's proclamation.
So far nothing had happened. Was it too early?
I wanted to go to the lounge for a while and rest, but I couldn't leave since I was the centrepiece of the celebration. So I slowly followed behind a group of ladies my age, until someone's hand suddenly fastened on my wrist.
When I whipped around in surprise, I recognized Beth.
"Ah... Beth it's you. You surprised me... What's wrong? You look..."
Beth's face was stiff with fright. When I looked closely, her hand on my wrist was trembling slightly.
"My Lady... I..."
She stopped talking, glanced around us, then came closer to my ear and whispered.
"She's trying to take advantage of... I think the Countess is..."
Editor’s Notes -
* This is referring to the modern Korean wedding tradition of gifting newlyweds congratulatory money (축의금) in lieu of gifts.
** Hong Gildong is an iconic Korean literary character from the popular fictional novel “The Biography of Hong Gildong” (홍길동전) written sometime between the 16th and 19th centuries (the author and origin of this story is still under academic debate). Hong Gildong is basically Korea's version of Robin Hood, the irreverent and charismatic illegitimate son of a nobleman and a concubine who travels around with a band of bandits ousting corrupt politicians and stealing to give to the poor. This story and character is absolutely ubiquitous in Korean culture, so much so that the name 'Hong Gildong' is a common placeholder name in Korea, equivalent to 'John Doe'. I assume Tara is referencing this character because Hong Gildong is an archetypal dashing rogue character who gains support using his wits and charisma much like Andrei himself.
*** 125 million Korean won is equal to roughly $96,000.00 USD at the current conversion rate. So basically, an absurd amount of money.
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